The accidental activist
While today I am known as a citizen advocacy journalist (the high-falutin' name for a political blogger), when it comes down to it I see myself as an average person; a woman living in the Mid-Atlantic South who happens to be black, a lesbian and concerned about my civil rights. I'm not an activist by any sense of the traditional definition, never having worked for an advocacy group, run for political office or been a grassroots organizer.
While many people now know I'm not one of those "big city gays," I still find myself in conversations with peers and they make an assumption that I must be writing out of DC or New York City since I'm a political blogger. When I say I live in Durham, NC, a number of people have a vague notion that it's located in a relatively progressive area of the state, others don't know where it is or what it's like politically. Many assume I'm not a native of the South since I don't have a very noticeable accent (neither does my brother, we're not sure why).
Anyway, here are the thumbnail facts: I was born in the Bull City back in the stone age of 1963, and moved to New York, specifically first to Hollis, Queens (Run-DMC!) and later Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. That was from 1976-1989. I returned to Durham in 1989 for the pace and quality of life -- all I need now is my civil equality (no small matter).
So this makes me an accidental activist; we could pack up and move to a Blue state where our Canadian marriage was recognized, but my spouse Kate (who hails from Birmingham, AL) and I love Durham, the people here, the interesting political environment, and the fact that we can live a pleasant existence in our progressive bubble as we work to make more of our state Blue and LGBT-friendly. Someone has to do it, we can't all leave the places that need more, even difficult work to move closer to equality.
In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at all that I fell into activism, thinking back to my own family's history during the civil rights movement, a no less-important struggle for equality. The Spauldings1 have played a role in the rich political history and life of the Bull City and North Carolina -- in electoral politics, education, business, race relations. Notable family members include businessman C.C. Spaulding2 3 part of the team that founded what was for a long time the largest black-owned business in America, The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Asa Spaulding, Sr.4 and Elna Spaulding were my late paternal grandparents, and were active in local politics, serving as Durham County Commissioners breaking racial barriers. In particular, my activism in the LGBT rights movement most resembles my grandmother's; she found herself bridging social boundaries, forging communication between groups -- black and white women -- who did not interact politically, but drew together to ensure Durham did not descend into violence during the stress points of the civil rights movement.
A civic leader in her own right, Elna Spaulding founded and served as president of Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, a community development and charitable organization in Durham. She was elected to two terms on the Durham County Board of Commissioners, served on numerous boards, and was active in such organizations as the Durham Day Care Council, Lincoln Community Health Center, Duke Medical Center, North Carolina Central Museum of Art, and local chapters of The Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the National Council of Negro Women.5
What I have learned about myself and my own political awakening as a lesbian of color living here in North Carolina, is that the fight for civil equality often conflicts with the role of religion in the South, specifically the socially conservative black church. It leaves many black gays and lesbians in the position of straddling cultures in a no man's land. Since I have been out for many years, and only tenuously connected to organized religion as a non-practicing Episcopalian, I did not have the coming-out process that caused a crisis in faith. That is not true for many lesbians down South.